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Take a look inside the drag pageant at McCune's

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    Hershae Chocolate performing during The Miss Other Side drag pageant at McCune's Other Side Bar & Bistro in Toledo on October 8, 2017.

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    Reigning drag queen Hershae Chocolate, left, brings the crown for the Bistro's new drag queen, Racine Alexander. At right is contestant Ericka Sanchez.

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    Listening to the rules for contestants are Ericka Sanchez, left, and Racine Alexander.

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    Ericka Sanchez performing "Black Butterfly". It is her winning entry in the "Other Side" category of the pageant.

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    Racine Alexander in her evening gown. On Wednesday she had finished putting on the rhinestones.

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    Nicki Stevens one of the judges and a veteran drag queen, performing during the pageant. In addition to entertaining the audience, performers who are not contestants give those who are time to change outfits.

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    Reigning Miss McCune drag queen Hershae Chocolate, facing camera, reading the rules to contestants Racine Alexander, left, Ericka Sanchez.

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    Hershae Chocolate, the reigning drag queen, performs during the pageant.

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    Racine Alexander shaves her face before the contest.

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    Gregory McKinley, left, brushes a wig for Ericka Sanchez, right, a contestant in the drag contest.

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    Gregory McKinley, left, brushes a wig for Ericka Sanchez, right, a contestant in the drag contest.

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A new Miss Other Side was going to be crowned on Oct. 8 at McCune’s Other Side Bar and Bistro, 5038 Lewis Ave., at a pageant full of glitz, glitter, and glamour. Hershae Chocolatae’s year-long reign was coming to an end. 

“I was actually appointed” as the first Miss Other Side in 2016, said the drag queen who goes by Shae. This was in recognition of her esteemed place in the drag community, as the winner of at least two dozen sparkling tiaras and a regular performer at the venue.

She’d prepared for months, planning several routines to “be performing all night.” Shae wanted to treat the evening as if she, herself, were competing in the pageant, so the audience could “see why they gave [the title] to me” last year, she said.

And she wanted the contestants – Racine Alexander of Westland, Mich., and Ericka Sanchez, a bartender at McCune’s – to really earn the crown, too. “Let’s make ‘em work for it,” she said.

The contestants

Ericka – “with a c and a k, because why be either/or when you’re more?” – has “been doing this since I was 16, and I’ll be 39 next year,” she said. “My very first time [seeing a drag show], they had to sneak me in ‘cause I wasn’t old enough.” As she watched the performance, “I understood that that’s what I should do,” she said with assurance.

“I didn’t realize I was a girl,” at that time, Ericka said. “I finally came to understand it when I was 21,” and she has lived as a woman since.

She was born in Toledo and raised in Florida, but moved back to Ohio to be near family after “a horrible car accident in 2015” that kept her in the hospital for 34 days and required the fusing of five vertebrae.

“It made logical sense for me to want to be Miss Other Side,” said Ericka; McCune’s was the first place she’d performed after returning to Toledo, “and they made me feel welcome.” She considers it to be “home.”

Racine saw her first drag show at 18, and knew immediately “that’s what I want to do.” But “this might be my last year doing” it, she said, after a 33-year career.

“I was making a living 20 years ago,” she said. But the business is changing, and now “it’s become more of a hobby than a profession.” Her generation, she said, “appreciated female illusion” and respected drag as “an art form.” These days, younger performers “all want to be on RuPaul,” she said dismissively.

“I knew I was transgender when I was 3,” said Racine, when she was a child model and “they dressed me as a girl.” She, too, lives as a woman.

She wanted to compete for the Miss Other Side title before retiring because “my career was kind of in the toilet” awhile ago, she said, and then Shae hired her for a show at McCune’s. That was successful and led to other bookings in the area, including Sunday brunches and drag bingo games.

“They brought me back to life,” Racine said. 

The pageant

Five judges sat in a row to judge the competition. Three of them – drag queens Nickki Stevens, Niomi Necoll Onassis, and Nikki Chase –  were scheduled, as were Shae and Trina Dior Valentino, to perform throughout the evening and showcase their own talents while giving Racine and Ericka time to change outfits between categories. They were joined by Bryan Richmond and “Mr. Chocolatae,” as hostess and performer Sylvia Austin referred to him: Hershae’s partner of 15 years, who’s known as Jim Latae.

And then the party got started when Sylvia introduced the contestants and asked the full house of spectators to “hoot and holler and give ‘em all the love you can.”

The theme of the pageant was Your Other Side, so the first presentation required the contestants to show a different aspect of themselves. Ericka walked out in a slim-fitting black gown and then dramatically unfurled enormous rainbow-colored butterfly wings, as though emerging in splendor from a cocoon. Racine is “known as a glamour girl,” she said, so for her turn she dressed comically as a pot-bellied hag in a house coat.

“I made them add ‘creative costume’ ” to the line-up of competition categories, said Shae, to see how the contestants would distinguish themselves.

For this presentation, Ericka returned to the stage as Rebbie Jackson’s song “Centipede” played, to a spoken lyric describing “a woman of true romance and beauty.” She shimmied out of a sparkling black cover-up to reveal an eight-armed costume; the appendages waved in unison as she danced. Racine walked out in a colorful homage to Cher, performing to the star’s “Half-Breed.”

The contestants showed off their glamor in the evening gown competition, Ericka in a silvery-blue open-backed sheath and Racine in a strapless red dress with a train that she had only finished enhancing with stones four days before the pageant.

As the contestants got ready for their final category, Shae performed a hip-swiveling, high-kicking, hand-clapping, and heart-pounding rendition of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” – her next-to-last number as Miss Other Side – to keep the audience entertained.

For the talent competition, Ericka’s final song was a powerful Patti LaBelle ballad, “You Are My Friend.” In a simple, sophisticated burgundy-colored dress, she performed passionately to the dramatic, gospel-influenced rendition, even falling to her knees and waving her arms before kicking off her shoes near the end and finishing the song in bare feet.

Racine began her performance enveloped in a swath of turquoise taffeta, lip syncing to “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles. She then segued into Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.”

She removed the cover-up to reveal a bodysuit emblazoned with glittering words: “freak,” “sissy,” “tranny,” and other insults regularly hurled at her and at other members of her community. It was a poignant moment underscored by the lyrics: “I am beautiful, no matter what they say. Words can't bring me down.”

The crowning

Shae had designed “a new ‘final walk’ dress” full of sparkle to wear as she said farewell to her reign and “[passed] on the title” to the next Miss Other Side. She performed to Valerie Pinkston’s “Trick of Fate,” featuring the lyrics, “I thought there was no way to make my dream come true ... [but] anything seems possible tonight.”

There was a significant delay, building anticipation, before Ericka and Racine – in a high-slit, vividly red dress and a bejewelled black gown, respectively – were brought out onto the floor for the crowning. “They had to double check the score sheets,” said Tim McCune, owner of the bar. “It was that close.”

Only one point separated the two contestants.

Then Sylvia announced the first alternate: “Miss Ericka Sanchez.”

And as the audience cheered wildly for both contestants, Racine was crowned Miss Other Side, crying with joy and gratitude as Shae placed the tiara on her head. The title came with a $1,000 prize package, including three future bookings at McCune’s.

Nothing could bring her down, that day.

Contact Mary Bilyeu at mbilyeu@theblade.com and follow her at facebook.com/thebladefoodpage.

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